Pitkin County’s mask mandate likely responsible for fewer COVID-19 cases, officials say

Pitkin County’s incidence rate of COVID-19 has dropped from triple to double digits in recent days, though a sixth county resident died of the virus Sunday.

Still, Pitkin County was one of only two of Colorado’s 64 counties with a COVID-19 incidence rate that was not within the Centers for Disease Control’s definition of “high” transmission rates, said Josh Vance, county epidemiologist. The sparsely populated Hinsdale County was the other.

“As of last night, the incidence rate was around 70 (per 100,000 residents),” Vance told members of the Pitkin County Board of Health on Thursday. “That’s the lowest it’s been in about five months” even with two fairly large hockey-related outbreaks last month.

Jordana Sabella, Pitkin County public health director, initially declined Thursday to release any information about the county resident who died Sunday from COVID-19. She cited guidance from the state public health department, which advises county public health departments not release any identifying information about COVID-19 deaths per a federal law governing the privacy of health-related information.

Later Thursday, Pitkin County spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said the person who died was a man in his 80s. He is the sixth Pitkin County resident to die of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March 2020.

During the early days of the pandemic, the Pitkin County coroner identified those who died from COVID-19. That agency’s job is to investigate all deaths in the county, release names of the dead and eventually release the cause of death. That responsibility, however, was later taken away from coroners when it comes to COVID-19 patients, so that information is no longer publicly available.

According to Pitkin County’s COVID-19 online dashboard, Wednesday’s incidence rate per 100,000 people was 56, with 10 new resident cases and five new out of county cases. That means the rate is still within the range the CDC considers “substantial” transmission, though below 50 drops the county into the “moderate “ transmission level.

If the rate remains below 50 for 21 consecutive days, Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate can be rescinded.

With the Christmas season approaching – Aspen’s population booms by thousands of people during the busiest time of year – that is not expected to happen, Sabella said.

“We fully expect our incidence rate to increase as more people come to town,” she told health board members Thursday.

Vance said low tourist numbers in town have contributed to the low transmission rate, with Aspen apparently not experiencing a bump in cases because of the Thanksgiving holiday. He also credited the indoor mask mandate for controlling transmission, even noting that the Aspen Public Schools have had zero outbreaks since the beginning of the school year thanks to the mask mandate.

“(School) districts with mask mandates have seen far fewer outbreaks,” Vance said.

As for the omicron variant, Vance said much remain unknown.

Omicron has not yet been detected in Pitkin County, though two cases — one in Boulder County and one in Arapahoe County — have been confirmed in Colorado. Omicron also has been detected in wastewater in Boulder County, which suggests a greater presence, he said.

The severity of COVID-19 caused by omicron is still not certain despite media reports that it causes a milder form of the virus, Vance said. Judging by the spread of the variant in the South African province where it was first detected, he said it appears to be 2½ to 3 times more infectious than the delta variant or other previous variants capable of infecting many more people who are exposed to it, he said.

It’s also not clear how much protection COVID-19 vaccines provide for omicron. However, public health officials are assuming that the vaccines and boosters will provide protection against severe COVID-19 and death, Vance said.


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